Ovid mentions the River Indus at the beginning of Metamorphoses – the poet’s monumental book on mythology that first appeared in 5 AD. The Roman writer probably knew that the River Indus is both the cradle of one of the world’s greatest civilizations and a source of life for the people of the region.
This river has many distinctions, one of which is that it is home to rare Indus river dolphins which the local people call “Bullan”.
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) website, the Indus river dolphins are believed to have originated in the ancient Tethys Sea. When the sea dried up approximately 50 million years ago, the dolphins were forced to adapt to their only remaining habitat—rivers.
These dolphins are found now only in the lower parts of the Indus River in Pakistan and in the River Beas, a tributary of the Indus River in Indian Punjab.
The WWF says the number of this rare animal declined dramatically after the construction of an irrigation system by the British, and most dolphins were confined to a 750 mile stretch of the river and divided into isolated populations by six barrages.
“They have adapted to life in the muddy river and are functionally blind. They rely on echolocation to navigate, communicate and hunt prey including prawns, catfish, and carp,” it says. The Secrets of the Blind Dolphin – a book by Swiss author George Hillary – is dedicated to the writer’s observations and experiences with regard to the dolphin.
He writes that dolphins are also found in the Brahmaputra River that reaches Bangladesh as well as the Ganges Rivers, but the Indus river dolphin is distinguished by its lack of eyesight.
In 1972, the first survey was conducted to find out the exact number of the dolphins. These dolphins have been seen in the Jinnah Barrage on the Indus River and its adjoining areas. But the largest number of these dolphins (1,419) are found between the Sukkur barrage and the Guddu barrage.
The dolphins can grow up to eight feet in length, weigh up to 100 kg and live up to some 30 years. These dolphins are generally considered to be fish but they are mammals as they feed their babies. The Sindh Wildlife Department has set up an Indus Dolphin Conservator Center in Sukkur.
Every year during floods, some of these blind dolphins wash into the canals from the Sukkur Barrage get trapped in these waterways when their water level reduces.
Mir Akhtar Talpur, in-charge of Indus Dolphin Conservator Center Sukkur, has conducted hundreds of rescue operations to protect the dolphins. According to Talpur, the number of Indus dolphins has increased in the Indus River from the Sukkur Barrage to the Guddu Barrage.
“We have been running successive campaigns to create awareness about this rare animal of the Indus River and now people immediately inform the wildlife department or the district administration, If they see a dolphin trapped in canals or shallow water. The people realize the importance of these blind dolphins and regard them as the beauty of the Indus River,” the official added.
According to Talpur, whenever the department gets information about a dolphin being trapped somewhere, it immediately rushes to that area and rescues the trapped animal.
Mir Akhtar Talpur told Bol News that the department recently placed chips in three dolphins in order to track their movements through satellite. “These dolphins have been released in the Indus River. Now many secrets about the lives of these blind dolphins will be revealed.”
He said due to the efforts of the Sindh Wildlife Department, the number of blind dolphins is increasing. “However, the release of polluted sewage water into the Indus River is endangering the lives of these dolphins,” the official warned.
Talpur said the blind dolphins get food from the river as they eat smaller water animals.
“These small fish and insects are affected by sewage and chemical water being released into the Indus River from factories. When the dolphins prey on such animals, they also get affected.” He called for devising a proper mechanism to deal with chemical effluents. “Sewage especially chemical effluents, should not be dumped into the Indus River in order to protect the dolphins,” he added.